Who Does the Overhead Bin Space Belong To, Anyway?

Before 9/11 it was common for airlines to allow two full-sized carry on bags onboard and that didn’t even count your personal item. Planes weren’t as full, and airlines didn’t charge for checked bags, so most customers didn’t do that and it was generally possible to find space in the overhead bins.

However two things changed that:

  1. The TSA happened, and to speed up security checkpoints limits were placed on carry on bags. More bags carried on means more bags going through the checkpoint, and more work for screeners.

  2. Checked baggage fees happened, starting with American Airlines in 2008. Customers who used to check even the one bag they’d be bringing with them stopped doing that because it was cheaper not to check.

Since then there’s been a race for bin space, which is unfortunate from my perspective because it means if you want to ensure you have space (especially space near your seat) and don’t have to gate check (if all the space is gone) you have to board early.

That’s good for airlines who want everyone in their seats and ready to go, less so for passengers who might grab a bite to eat in the airport or send that last email from the lounge.

For years customers in economy have stowed their bags wherever they’ve been able to find space. And that’s been acceptable because there are no clear norms and no enforced rules over who overhead bin space belongs to.

That’s changing.. sort of. First Delta and now American label their bins with a respective cabin, suggesting that only passengers in those seats should use those bins. That discourages some people from stuffing their belongings in the overhead as they walk by on their way to the rear of the aircraft, but it doesn’t work with everyone.

Here are (6) principles for carry on bags that I think are true.

  • When everyone is on board, remaining space belongs to everyone. It would be stupid to require a passenger to gate check a bag because there’s no space left in ‘their section’ of the aircraft but open space up front.

    If a passenger is entitled to use bin space in their ticketed cabin, and coach passengers should walk back to coach and hunt and peck there, surely this changes at some point during the boarding process. If you’re in the last minutes of boarding can’t you take any space at all?

  • A boarding pass is a license to hunt. While everyone except Basic Economy passengers on United and on some (other) ultra low cost carriers are entitled to bring a carry on bag onto the plane, there’s generally not enough space for everyone to actually do that. And since there’s not enough room for everyone to have space above their seat, there’s no entitlement to the space directly above your seat.

  • It’s not ok to take bin space above the bulkhead if you aren’t seated there. Those seats generally don’t have floor storage so passengers into those seats have to stow not just a carry on but also their personal item up there as well.

  • Unwritten rules sadly aren’t enforceable. American Airlines says 87% of customers fly at most once a year. If there are unwritten rules, how are those customers supposed to know them? And if they aren’t required to follow unwritten rules, no one else can be either.

  • There’s an information problem. Passengers boarding the plane don’t know what bin space has already been taken or what’s left. Closed bins might be a signal, or the bins might just be closed.

  • Coach passengers taking first class bin space slows down deplaning. Coach passengers with bags up front don’t delay deplaning much. First class passengers who have to put their bags farther back have to fight their way back into the cabin on landing to get their cabin baggage. Deplaning speed suggests passengers should use space nearest to them, and taking space in front of your row means someone else has to move backwards on landing. Wouldn’t Kant say this is a categorical imperative?

  • Be sure you aren’t last to board. If someone is going to have to gate check a bag you don’t want it to be you.

This tells me that no matter what signs airlines put on bins, there’s going to be some deviation and airlines aren’t asking flight attendants to enforce the signs. First class bins should be for first class passengers first but the end goal should be getting as many carry on bags on the plane as possible.

Ultimately this is a war of all against all, and you have to take care of yourself, the best way to do that is to race the boarding gate and get on as soon as your boarding group is called.

The only real solution of course is bigger overhead bins. Alaska was first out with these new Boeing bins, American Airlines has put them into most narrowbody aircraft avia their ‘Project Oasis’ retrofit that takes out seat back entertainment and uses uncomfortable slimline seats to squeeze passengers closer together. United has said they’ll do bigger bins too.

The two changes are linked, of course, it’s entirely possible to put in more bins without also squeezing seats closer together, unless the ultimate goal is to use those bigger bins to carry more passengers.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I see another “fee” in the future – guaranteed overhead bin space fee. What should be enforced is the carry on size regulations.- if oversized, it must be checked – NO exceptions

  2. Despite the incessant urging of the FAs during boarding, people will still put small items (Cpap, purses, laptop cases, coats, and hats) up in the bin. Also, people seem to have no idea what it means to stow your carryon like a book, put the carryon on its side – like the picture in the back of the bin. And, as the other poster noted, the carryon sizes of luggage people carryon is vastly oversized despite the urging to try the luggage sizer and get it checked “free” at the gate. It boils down to people not wanting to check bags, at the same time as not wanting to follow any of the guideline, written, spoken, or not.

  3. I have no idea what I just read… This was like reading a conversation with one person… weird.

  4. @Steve: well this is why there is a problem. You. Simple. Your reading this should not be difficult to understand.

  5. Love it when you’re in the first row of biz and the crew have used the corresponding bins for all their luggage—forcing you to stow yours above a row behind your seat—which is a ofcourse a nightmare when upon landing impatient isle lice cram forward and make it impossible to get back to your luggage. Fun times.

  6. I make it easy. Fly only FC or BC. Carry 1 rollerboard and 1 backpack. Roller goes in overhead and backpack under seat on non international flights.

    Then I close the overhead if it’s mainly full. I want to make the hunt more of a challenge and help out the FAs so they don’t have to stretch up so much.

  7. I wonder how to find out which domestic flights have business class to the left, or front, of the boarding door? Coach passengers won’t use the business class bins if they don’t walk past them to get to coach class.
    The last time we flew Business Class, we didn’t realize why coach class passengers pushed past us when our group was called to board. Sure enough, the bins over our seats were full and we had to use the bins at the back of the plane. We were the last to leave the plane.

  8. These observations are all “WOKE” and must be denounced. You should be able to put your bag anywhere and especially in the bulkhead. It’s your right to do so!!!!

  9. There is a solution. Label the first few bins of economy class as “Priority Space for Rows 8-10”. That means that initially the first bins or two of economy class is for the seats under them.

  10. @Patti, if only it were that simple. I’ve had plenty of instances flying domestic first class (where the cabin is smaller) where coach passengers have taken the space or where small items like jackets are taking up that space. I once had an argument with a guy who refused to put his souvenir bag below the seat in front of him.

  11. The casual traveler is not familiar with boarding batting order – pre-boards, group 1, group 2, etc.
    The casual traveler is not familiar with what goes up top versus under the seat.
    The casual traveler is not familiar with how to stow something up top.
    Most travelers are not intentionally jerks about the overhead bins. They are simply thoughtless about the consequences of how they stow things. Epimetheus.

  12. Perhaps the solution is to start charging a fee for carry-on luggage too. Then use that fee to retrofit planes with larger bins and make more profit.

    Personally I always board last as there is much more free space in an airport then in an airplane and then as a last passenger to board I stow my carry-on under my seat unless there is still space overhead.

  13. “there’s no entitlement to the space directly above your seat.”

    There is on Swiss. I watched an indignant B passenger in the center section ask the flight attendant whose bag was in the bin above their seat. The attendant was equally indignant and starting asking everyone nearby who’s it was. The gentleman in the aisle same row sheepishly admitted it was his, apologized and jumped up to move it over.

  14. I’d suggest one more rule, which at on Alaska at least is announced…

    Put your bag in lengthwise and in the newer bins on edge. Otherwise you are hogging space that someone else could use.

  15. What exacerbates the problem is people carrying on big bags, particularly multiple ones. It looks like they’re packing for a week’s vacation but because of status or flying up front they don’t bother to check a bag. They take up huge swathes of overhead compartment space, which means less for normal people. They’re easy enough to spot: just look for the people with 2-3 large bags. The people will usually cut in front of everyone else who has been waiting patiently so they can claim the overhead space first.

  16. Only issue flying domestic travel with backpack only in F. People with to much luggage put stuff in bins. Sometimes people try to push the rollerbag into my backpack because it’s to large anyway to fit. In my backpack are the fragile things also. Owh and sure take your guitar and McDonald’s food with you. Maybe enforce the rule of carry on luggage. And if I only take a backpack and pay for F I should not have to fight for overhead bin space. And no I’m very tall so not in front of me. To less space already

  17. Noone seems to be mentioning that a lot of the times entire bins are already filled with aircraft stuff (blankets, life vests, whatever else, maybe extra luggage / cargo that flight attendants carry). I don’t know why but it seems to happen to me quite often. Sometimes i am one of the first to board for my section but have no bin space and have to put a bag in front or behind my seat, thus occupying space for those rows.

  18. Every ticket purchased should correspond directly to 1 space in the overhead bin. Not sure why this hasn’t been done.

    It would be great not to have to board early just to have space for your bag.

  19. Question for another column — if you put your bags farther back and rush back when the seatbelt sign turns off, do you have the right to come back to your original row before de-planing? I think if you get stuck back there, its your own fault.

  20. I hear what everyone is saying.
    We usually comment to each other on the plane…….calling other passengers either there goes another inexperienced novice or that guy obviously never flys.
    But not sure what to do about it…….there will always be about 25-30% newbies on every flight !

  21. Number the bins corresponding to seat numbers! Of course AFTER the plane’s crew have their bins. Then have the staff find open bins before the plane is leaving. I know, I know…it’s a try though but everyone is always in a hurry!!

  22. Gary, some back of the napkin math….. If the typical seat pitch is 28-32 inches, and the “maximum carryon size” is ~22x14x9, then if all carryons are properly stowed, there is no reason why the storage space above ones seat should be taken. I.E. 27/9=3. Personally, and I know this is probably a pipedream, I would like to see assigned storage, just like seating. IE, 9A gets the first third, 9b, middle, 9c last. Etc. It would speed things up.

  23. Joseph forgot the /s after his comment.

    One thing that can help clear a little more space is enforcing the carry on size. On all my UA and DL flights it is taken as a polite suggestion. One-baggers trying to get their 46L bag onto the aircraft when it is clearly larger than the allotted size need to check that. Get that bag down to 30L or GTFO.

  24. How to solve the bin problem quickly:

    Checked baggage is free (the first one or two, anyway)

    Personal item that will fit under the seat is free.

    Carryon item that goes in the bin is $20.

    Not only will there be space for those who want it enough to pay for it, but with many fewer items in the bins, a loaded A320 or 737 will empty in five minutes.

  25. @carletonm That’s a false economy in multiple ways. Carry-on/ cabin baggage is limited in size ( irrelevant of whether staff do their job at check-in or the gate). Checked luggage is, potentially/ usually, much larger and importantly. Much heavier.

    If you allow a full size, large, suitcase x100 to go in the hold for free then the flight needs to take on more fuel to account for the higher overall weight. That fuel costs in cash terms, fuel burn & emissions. Those costs get put on YOUR ticket. Airlines track luggage type, amount and weight for every sector flown & on those which have higher loads that forms one 9f the fare factors. Including on HBO fares.

    As an example. My elite status with BA allows me to take 1×32 kg( hold), 1x 15kg & any 2nd piece upto 10kg in the cabin short haul. 2×32 etc on long haul in any class & 3×32 etc if flying F. Now I don’t ever use that but imagine the fuel costs compared to the most I ever take of 1×15 + a small backpack/ laptop case SH or 1×32 and same again on a LH.

  26. Simple solution-

    Overhead bin above each row is for the seats below. If full … gate check the bag.

    It’s insane the people who have bags that don’t comply with sizing rules .

    And don’t rely on the gate agent who’ll tell you your bag should fit.
    Many times I’ve brought my carry on bag onto the plane because the gate agent said it would fit – and it doesn’t.

  27. I worked for a few different airlines for over 35 years. Seen it all, but the day airlines started charging checked bag fees, everything changed. Before deregulation the overhead bins were mostly used for hats and coats or very fragile items.
    Even for the ramp agents it got worse, people stuffing full one heavy bag vs a couple lighter bags. I could go on for hours about rules and regulations heaped on the airline industry by the governments AFTER deregulation ,Issues that are not obvious to the public, but costs trickle down to the employees first, then to passengers.
    There are no easy fair answers, but ending checked bag fee’s on all airlines, sure would end a lot of chaos of flying.

  28. Clayton: The bag is going onto the plane anyway, whether it’s in the overhead bin or in the hold as checked baggage. The weight it adds to the plane is the same no matter where on the plane it is. The only way the plane would be heavier is if free checked baggage caused the passenger to bring more stuff on his or her trip. Since the passenger would have to deal with it off the plane this would likely not happen.

  29. About the only time this is an issue for me on BA short haul is if a gaggle of fellow status holders are ahead of me and throw their bag in the J/ F bin a above me as they walk back to coach. On the rare occasion that happens I simply.pull theirs out, put mine up and then deliver it to them in their row saying I was worried they’d lost their bag before walking off.

    On the LCCs it’s just a general scrum but I tend to avoid them if I can. On legacy carriers in the EU I think it’s just an observed rule that those down the back don’t put their items in the business class bins.

    BA will also be quite ruthless with repeated warnings about lack of cabin space and asking for volunteers ahead of boarding if they know there’s too many bags to fit and if they don’t get them then they’ll just say “ok pax in group 5, rows 17 back. You’ll be gate checking your bags as not enough volunteers came forward”

    Tends to get a handle on things before boarding even begins and the handlers keep an open bin ready to fill and then push in to complete baggage loading.

  30. I wonder how difficult it would be to have passengers enter the plane from the back.
    First class would still come first and no one would leave their bag in an overhead behind them so this might be a way to solve the problem.

  31. Upon reading your article, I wish to correct your statement that the “TSA happened” which caused these problems. Untrue. 9-11 happened. 5 airliners were overtaken & thousands of people were killed. People need to remember that the limits, and rules were due to terrorists.

  32. Problem is most of the boarding ramps at most of the airports are lined up for boarding through the front left door. Back in the good old days of walking out onto the ramp and climbing movable stairs, though …

  33. I like to choose my battles. Coming from a big family we had to learn to compromise and share. So sad to see grownups get all worked up and stressed over a tiny space to call your own. It ain’t worth the grief. What happened to kindness and consideration.

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